1. Washington Capitals: x-108 Points (50-17-8)
Will this be the year that the Capitals can finally make it out of the second round? You’d have to think yes, because the Caps have been the league’s best all-around team this year. They are fourth in possession with a 51.74% Corsi-for and their 9.6% even strength shooting percentage leads the league. On top of this their .938 even strength sv% is also the best in the league. However, their issue over the past few years will still be there: when it's crunch time and they need a goal, who will step up and score it?
For years Alex Ovechkin has been the obvious answer, but this year he has had a bit of an off year. Ovechkin is coming off of a hat trick over the Wild last night, but all three goals were on the power play. He has 33 goals this season and 17 of them have come on the power play, most of which came from his one spot. During the playoffs, refs swallow their whistles and he won’t be able to stay in his office. The Caps will be at a point in the playoffs where they are looking for that turning point, and so far Ovechkin hasn’t delivered consistently at even strength.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets: x-105 Points (49-19-7)
Columbus is proving that they are for real. With a heavily injured Pittsburgh team struggling to string multiple wins together, the Jackets have gone out and earned points in eight of their last 10 games to claim the second position in the Metro. With the recent struggles of Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk, Sergei Bobrovsky has cemented himself as the Vezina favorite. In the month of March, Bob has had a .970 sv% and a GAA of under 1.00.
Columbus now heads to Raleigh to face the Canes on Thursday, for a game that will be circled on all Canes fans’ calendars. This game will pit two of the hottest teams in the league against each other, both of which are locked in battles for the playoffs. The Blue Jackets have struggled to score, scoring just 36 goals in 14 games played in March. However, with the way Bobrovsky has been playing, two or three goals a night will be good enough to win games. They will prove to be an incredibly difficult team for the Pens to play in the first round.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins: x-103 Points (46-18-11)
I know it’s been brought up in the past, but the Penguins’ injury situation is insane. For their last game on Sunday, the Pens had seven players on the injury report including four defensemen and three forwards. Pittsburgh is missing two full defensive pairings with Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey all sitting out. Daley, Maatta, and Hainsey are all skating at practice, which means they should be returning to the lineup soon. Forwards Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin, and Carl Hagelin have all missed time including Sunday’s game.
The personnel losses have led to a bit of a slump for the Penguins who have lost their last three games, two of which were in overtime. On the bright side, the Pens still have Sidney Crosby, who has extended his goal lead on the rest of the league to four points. Crosby scored his 42nd during Friday’s game against the Islanders, but has had an up and down week after he caught a lot of flak for cup checking Ryan O’Reilly on Tuesday and shattering Marc Methot’s finger with a slash on Thursday against the Senators.
4. New York Rangers: x-97 Points (46-26-5)
The New York Rangers are happy to have their starting goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, back from injury with plenty of time to get back to form before the playoffs. Lundqvist played in his first game since March 9th on Sunday which ended as a 6-3 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. Despite the scoring line, the game wasn’t all Lundqvist’s fault. The defense committed multiple turnovers that led to goals including a failed pass that led to an odd man short-handed rush.
As odd as it sounds, winning isn’t as important to the Rangers as getting their team in the right mindset and form for the playoffs. Lundqvist will need a couple of games to shake off the rust of missing eight games, and their defense needs to settle back down and return to mid-season form. With the first wild card position being the most desirable position for the Rangers, they are more than happy staying right where they are in the standings.
5. New York Islanders: 82 Points (35-28-12)
After climbing out of the basement of the Eastern Conference to a playoff position, the Islanders’ play has fallen off. The Isles are just 4-5-1 in their last 10 games, keeping them four points behind the Bruins for the final wild card position in the East (and suddenly tied with the surging Hurricanes). For the majority of the season, the Isles have been strong at home with a 12-7-7 record going into March 13, but have now lost five straight games at Barclays.
New York has struggled greatly on the power play in the month of March. Since March 1, the Isles are successful on just 10.8% of their opportunities, earning only 4 goals in 37 opportunities. Their 10.8% is third worst in the league ahead of only the Philadelphia Flyers and the Colorado Avalanche. In other news, the Isles have been making some roster moves, calling up goaltender Jaroslav Halak for the playoff push. In his first game back last Friday he earned a win against the Penguins with a .925 Sv%.
6. Carolina Hurricanes: 82 Points (34-27-14)
With a win against the Red Wings last night, the Carolina Hurricanes have tied a franchise record with a 12 game point streak. Over these 12 games, the Canes have earned an 8-0-4 record and 20 points in the standings. Due to this late season run, the Hurricanes are fighting for the final wild-card spot, but still sit four points behind the Bruins for the final wild card position.
During this point streak, the Canes have finally been putting it together. Jeff Skinner has earned 11 goals in 12 games, and a seven-game goal streak, which ties the longest of the season by any player. This marks the third 30-goal season for Skinner and he is only two behind his career best. Sebastian Aho also earned a six-game point streak and has scored five goals since March 9th. Aho currently sits at third in goals for a rookie and sixth in total points for a rookie.
One of the best stories this season has been the emergence of Elias Lindholm and these last 12 games have been his best. He has earned points in 11 of the last 12 games including a 10 game point streak. His 43 points this season already eclipse his personal best. It’s not all good, though; Eddie Lack was having his best games as a Cane before he suffered a neck strain on the final play of Monday’s game against the Red Wings. The hit initially looked worse, so a strained neck is the best diagnosis he could have gotten.
7. Philadelphia Flyers: 80 Points (36-32-8)
In their last two games, Philadelphia has strung together two wins against teams in playoff position. They put together an impressive 6-2 win against the injury-riddled Pittsburgh Penguins and followed that up with a shootout win against the Ottawa Senators to keep their playoff hopes alive, albeit on life support. Philadelphia now sits six points out of the playoffs with just six games remaining and no games in hand.
Much like the Hurricanes, the Flyers have struggled to get everything going at the same time. Early in the season, they were scoring but goaltending was subpar. Now, their scoring has dried up, but their goaltending has improved. The Flyers, who through January had the worst goaltending in the league, have a .939 sv% at even strength which is good for seventh place. From the start of the season through the end of February they were only at .906%. This improvement has given this team the chance to win low scoring games for the first time all year.
8. New Jersey Devils: 68 Points (27-35-14)
The Devils continue Tankapalooza 2017 and currently have the same odds as the Vegas Golden Knights for third best lottery odds. The Devils still have the chance to catch the Coyotes for the second best odds in the draft, which would increase their chance for a top three pick from 30.7% to 35.3% and for the top pick by 2%.
The Devils bolstered their defensive prospects yesterday as they signed UMass-Lowell defenseman Michael Kapla to a two-year entry-level contract. Kapla will report to the Devils to get his shot at showing the organization what he can do. Signing with the Devils gives him an immediate opportunity to come in and get ice time. He is ineligible for the AHL playoffs, so he will spend the rest of the season in the NHL.
(x - playoff spot clinched)